Saturday, January 31, 2009

Rules of the Road (En Ra Ha!)

Engaging in minor economic fiddling as my financial Rome burns, I took a defensive driving class for which I paid $22, cash. Thus I will lower my auto-insurance premiums by 10 percent for several years. There were about 20 of us in a gray room. Mostly men, many immigrants, all of us very well behaved and attentive. Over the six hours in which we took turns reading aloud from our booklets and discussing the contents and filling in blanks, we were graced with two breaks, a free slice of pizza, and the option of Pepsi in a small plastic cup. At the end we got an evaluation sheet on which we were to jot down what we had learned. Nothing, I thought at first. But then I felt sorry for the instructor, so I wrote "useful reminders" and "anti-lock brakes."

Or maybe I should have answered "air bags." We saw video that showed us how they could explode out of the steering wheel and break your arm if you draped it across the wheel. Or if you illegally put your baby in the front, the erupting bag could slam the baby in its chair into the passenger seat--and if that gruesome impact didn't happen to crush every bone, the airbag might suffocate the infant. I have definitely learned why everyone was so upset about Britney.

They didn't have stuff like that when I was young. We didn't have air bags. I'm sure many millions more have been saved by the wonders of air bags--and they do seem pretty wondrous--than have been damaged by their impact. There is no need for me to lapse into my usual grousing about the dark underbelly of betterment.

But what was the true answer to that question? I was actually thinking about that days later. Well, there was something, but it wasn't the kind of answer they'd have wanted. I learned that one can discover the raw material for philosophical inquiry in the least likely settings. I could imagine an essay question, something like this: Consider the function of rules and standards in anecdote 1, 2, or 3--or all three. Discuss.

Herewith, in reverse chronological order:

3. In hour six, we open to a page headed: "Things Other Drivers Do That Irritate Me." For example, 2. Hesitant passer. 4.Passing, then slowing. 5. Overcautious left-turner. 10. Speeding up when being passed. And so on.

Is your blood pressure rising? Mine was.

The room stirs. We all lean forward, ready to share.

But our instructor, a mild-mannered fellow who may actually have a pocket protector, has larger aims. "What is a moral value?" he asks. "The right thing to do, you say? Okay. A code of ethics, maybe?

"So, what happens when our moral values are in conflict with things on the road? Speed, being cut off? We experience rage and frustration."

Moral values? That's the cause of road rage? Who'd a thunk? I realize I'm shocked at the turn things have taken. And besides, my jaw's still clenched from remembering that Brinks truck I lost a stand-off to at the merge to the tunnel. And I would have won, if he hadn't almost taken off my mirror. Geez, did I hear that? Is he actually making some kind of deep Buddhist case for the relinquishment of attachment to one's sense of righteousness?

Our humble instructor flicks on an old Dateline segment (Jane Pauley!) in which one driver in prison for repeatedly shooting and finally killing another driver explains that he'd done the only thing he could do given the wrongs he had suffered. According to the booklet, 66 percent of all fatal collisions involve some form of road rage.

2. Q. How far do you need to park on either side of a fire hydrant?

A. 15 feet.

Yeah, I think, contemplating all the times I shaved it down to 10, and how wide is a hose?

"I'm a fireman," says a voice from the back of the room. "You want to know why that rule exists? Because the engine is just less than 30 feet. If it has 30 feet, it can pull into the curb. If it's out in the street, the ladder truck can't pass. And then there's no rescue. It costs lives."

"I didn't know that," says the instructor.

The room falls deeply silent.

"You know the most frequent violator parked in front of the hydrant?" says the fireman.

No one does.

"Police cars."

1. "Here we go again," says the guy behind me. Gray hair, slicked back. Gruff, gregarious manner. Harley-Davidson jacket.

"You've taken this before?" I ask.

"Oh, yeah. I've gotta screamin' yellow sportscar."

He sounds so excited it's hard not to smile.

The instructor goes over the violations point system, informing us that it takes 11 points to get a suspension, and then there's a rising scale of fees required before you can get your license back.

"It's allll about the money," says Harley man.

It turns out there's another reason for taking this class besides lower rates: You can get points taken off your license.

"How many?" asks the instructor.

"FOUR! You get four off so you can get four more!" the guy yells, gleefully.

I feel a little chill.

"Yes, you get four off every 18 months. You can erase points you already have, but you can't use it as a credit against points you're going to get."

"Eighteen months?" the guy mutters. "Eighteen months?"

He pulls out his phone. "Hey, when did I take this thing last? You gotta find out for me. Right now."

There's a pause.

"Oh, shit, 11? 11 months? I gotta get outta here."

And he does, in a hurry.

Drive safely, dude. Please.


JMC said...

Very nice, dude.

Gerry Gomez Pearlberg said...

This is a favorite of mine—I keep thinking about those firetrucks and those hydrant lanes.